For students who identify as transgender or nonbinary, choosing the right college can be bring extra challenges other students don’t face. It can be even more problematic if the goal is to attend a private Christian college or university. Some might question if that’s even possible. Others will likely ask if it’ll be safe. The good news is that these questions can bring positive answers. But you won’t find the same options everywhere. “While some religiously affiliated colleges are very supportive of their trans students, others are quite hostile,” says Genny Beemyn, Trans Policy Clearinghouse Coordinator for Campus Pride, an organization that promotes a safer college environment for LGBTQ+ students. Let’s take a look at the nature of Christian colleges and how trans and nonbinary students can conduct their college search to find supportive environments where they can learn and grow in their faith.
Examining the Christian faith
Upon first glance, it might seem logical that college practices and policies would be somewhat uniform, at least for schools that maintain a Christian connection. But “Christian” is a deceptively simple term for a faith that encompasses thousands of different denominations with widely varying beliefs. Just as in society at large, Christian colleges take different stances regarding gender identity. Some hold long-standing beliefs, typically mirroring those of the denomination they’re affiliated with, that support only traditional standards. In fact, only a minority of them welcome transgender or nonbinary students while striving to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all.
For students considering attending a Christian college or university, it’s important to explore the polices, practices, and services of any given school. “Nonbinary and binary trans students should investigate all the colleges they might attend, especially private Christian institutions, to see what policies they have in place to support trans students and if they have any anti-trans policies,” Beemyn advises.
What to look for in your Christian college search
To make the best choice, take some time to review relevant info. The best places to start are the websites for colleges you’re potentially interested in. Here are the details you should be looking for.
Clear, welcoming language
If you check out any college's website or printed publications, you're likely to find a statement saying the school doesn’t discriminate in admitting students or in other practices. While such declarations indicate that an institution will follow legal requirements, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will welcome all prospective students equally on a more fundamental level. In your own analysis, look for published language clearly showing that trans and nonbinary students are welcome.
For example, Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has this statement posted on their website: “Calvin University seeks to be a community where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons are treated with respect, justice, grace, and understanding in the Spirit of Christ. We recognize the complexity of current issues around homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and gender identity. The University desires to engage these conversations with courage, humility, prayerfulness, and convicted civility.”
Similarly, Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has put clear guidelines and services in place to support transgender students as integral members of its diverse campus community. While admitting students who consistently live and identify as women, the school maintains an application process with a gender identity disclosure option. This means applicants may include students who live and identify as female regardless of biological sex, as well as female students who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming.
Open and protective policies
A welcoming stance for incoming students matters only at the very start of your college journey. Once you enroll as a student, the ongoing policies and practices on campus are what really count. As one example, Calvin has developed a “Safer Spaces” policy to address instances of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation. The University utilizes staff training and peer education to inform faculty and students about the harm caused by disrespectful speech, such as the use of "put down" language or perpetuating stereotypes. Students who experience or observe mistreatment based on sexual orientation or gender identity are expected to report it, and University staff investigate and follow-up on such matters. In addition, policies related to more tangible matters such as living arrangements and restrooms are designed to protect LGBTQ+ students as well as other students.
Targeted support services
Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has developed a number of services for transgender and gender non-conforming students. Advocacy, advising, mentoring, and other types of support are available for nonbinary and transgender individuals through the school’s student services unit. This includes advice on navigating policies and situations at the University in which assistance may be needed. Similarly, the Rainbow Resource Center at Santa Clara University in California offers services to educate, empower, and celebrate the experiences and identities of the LGBTQ+ community. It maintains an affirming, inclusive, and welcoming environment for people of all identities and advocates for those who self-identify within the wide spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities/expressions. Available resources include relevant restroom information and lists of supporting University offices and courses that discuss LGBTQ+ issues.
Also look for student clubs or other organizations of possible interest. At Calvin, for instance, Sexuality and Gender Awareness (SAGA) is a peer education group of LGBTQ+ students and straight allies who support each other and help educate the campus. The group meets regularly for fellowship and learning and sponsors events throughout the year aimed at fostering a more welcoming and educated community.
Flexible name choices
A simple—but perhaps revealing—factor is a school’s policies for listing and recognizing student’s names. At Augsburg, students as well as staff and faculty may choose to use a first name other than their legal name to identify themselves on specified college records. Students can use an online form to designate a name change. To make things convenient in this area, Santa Clara offers a template for a letter that students can provide to professors informing them of name preferences (chosen name vs. legal name) along with preferred pronouns (he/him, she/her, they/them, etc.).
Flexible athletic policies
For students interested in athletics, it’s important to identify relevant sports-related policies at your schools of interest. At Augsburg, a specific policy stipulates access to varsity teams for transgender student-athletes. This policy outlines a range of key points such as participation by transgender student-athletes, appeals processes, confidentiality, public communications, travel accommodations, dress code and uniforms, and changing/showering facilities. Be sure to not only check the main website for your schools of interest but also their athletics-specific websites for relevant policies.
Connect with real students
While online details can be revealing, it’s also a good idea to obtain firsthand information. For any school you’re seriously considering, an in-person campus visit is always a good idea. If possible, talk with students as well as staff, and don’t be reluctant to ask questions. If a visit isn’t practical, perhaps you can connect with recent graduates, either in person or through social media. The more info you obtain before making a commitment to attend a given school, the more likely you are to get a real picture of what it will be like to enroll there and whether you’ll feel safe, protected, and supported on campus.
While it’s important to identify specifics about colleges that will support you, learning about schools that aren’t a good fit through your background research is also helpful. Certainly, it can be disappointing to learn that you might not feel welcome at any one college or university. But it’s better to find that out in advance of any substantial commitment of your time, energy, or financial resources. By focusing on Christian schools that are truly open to all, you can make a great choice for pursuing your college dreams.
Learn more about great religious colleges that will support you on our featured Christian School Profiles page.